Takeout sushi is to Pedro Espada as shoes were to Imelda Marcos.
Out of all the outrages, great and small, contained in a civil lawsuit filed against the Senate Majority Leader, the $20,000 bill from a sushi restaurant takes the cake. Make that the sashimi.
The takeout meals came from two restaurants in Westchester County. They were delivered to the house in Mamaroneck where Espada actually lives with his family, even though he represents a poor district in the Bronx. They were paid for, according to the suit, by the Comprehensive Community Development Corp., which runs five health clinics in poor neighborhoods in Espada's district.
This is far, far, far from the worst thing Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is charging Espada with doing. All told the tab for a five year period ran to $14 million, for everything from campaign literature to vacations in Las Vegas to $2 million in salaries for family members. And $2,500 a month to support the Bronx co-op Espada acquired in order to maintain the illusion that he actually lives in his district.
But the takeout charge encapsulates everything loathsome about Espada. He lives in a tony suburb while representing the Bronx. He thinks the world owes him upscale sushi. He has no shame.
The string of clinics, which everybody refers to as Soundview, has always been at the core of Espada's political power. They're run on $14 million a year in taxpayer money, from federal and state grants, Medicare and Medicaid. As a senator, he helps get them funding, and the staff and vendors are there to help him continue to get re-elected.
Espada did all this with the connivance of Soundview's board of directors, which has all the appearances of a family reunion. Two uncles sit on the board, as well as Espada's sister's boyfriend, the mother of two of his grandchildren, and nearly half dozen past and present staff members.
That kind of thing is common in the state legislature. Every legislator is given a piggy bank of cash ("member items") to spend on community groups in his or her district. In many cases, the groups are chosen less for their good works than their willingness to provide campaign workers at election time, and jobs for political supporters all year round. Virtually every year, somebody gets indicted for setting up dummy charities that recycle the money directly back into legislative pockets.
But the impact of this system has proven much more damaging to New York State than mere pork-barrel politics as usual. Last year, Espada wanted to funnel $2 million in member-item money into a pair of phantom non-profit groups set up solely to receive the cash. This was too much even for Senate Democrats, who rejected his scheme. An angry Espada bolted the party and joined Senate Republicans.
This touched off the bizarre series of power plays that handed power in the Senate to the Republicans, and then back to the Democrats. The state legislature virtually shut down while this little political farce was played out. In the process, Espada made a public spectacle of himself. It's stunning, really, to think that a guy who allegedly has so much to hide would be so hungry for the spotlight.
Cuomo called criminal charges "a very real possibility." Let's hope that he gets Soundview cleaned up before he tries to send Espada up the river. Otherwise, according to a deal approved by that ever-supportive board of directors, he is eligible for $9 million in severance payments. Which would bankrupt the entire operation.